Thursday, 12 November 2015

hamlet: ethan hawke

Last week I watched (recorded off FilmFour a couple of years ago) the 2000 film version of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke (and many other familiar faces).

It was a modern version, relocated to a modern-day US business empire. It was a reasonable production, in general, though nothing special.

Assorted notes.
- Ethan Hawke seemed quite characterless, perhaps deliberately impenetrable, but it came across as a bit bland.

- I thought Liev Schrieber as Laertes was easily the best performance. I thought silence was used well in his encounters with Hamlet after the funeral, making a virtue of the fact that of course a lot of those lines were cut (though that presumably is a director's decision).

- Sometimes I got the feeling that some people were delivering lines like they'd learned them phonetically but didn't know what they meant.

- In the equivalent of the corridor scene, with Hamlet and Ophelia (Julia Stiles) being 'overheard' by Claudius and Polonius, I thought it worked well that Ophelia was 'wearing a wire' rather than being spied on (the use of surveillance, communication and media technology was a key element of the modernisation, though interestingly of course this made it very dated, not least with the presence of a fax machine, large floppy disks and a video rental store). The fact that it was uncovered while it was being made apparent that they did love each other emphasised the sense of betrayal that Hamlet felt, and the guilt which Ophelia felt in having done so and being found out. I don't remember having seen that drawn out so well, and made sense as a precipitating factor towards breakdown/madness.

- Having the post-reveal insults in the corridor scene become answerphone messages left by angry/bitter Hamlet after the event worked well.

- Polonius was shot through a mirrored wardrobe door, pretty sure as also in the David Tennant production.

- I'm pretty sure there's a shot of Hamlet getting out of a car with the Lion King theatre in the background, a little in-joke.

- Laertes holds the mad Ophelia tenderly, as a loving brother would in real life, and so rarely happens in Hamlet.

- Something else that rarely happens in Hamlet, interestingly enough, is any sense that Hamlet is changed by his first murder, of Polonius. There was definitely a sense in which this Hamlet felt guilt, or if not guilt then certainly trauma, about having murdered someone, and particularly the wrong person. So perhaps not as characterless as I said above.

- When Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) is telling Laertes to seize the moment and take his revenge on Hamlet, I did have the thought perhaps for the first time (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps something in the performance) that this is how he had persuaded himself to seize his own moment, before the play, for murder and marriage (because he was quite a mild-mannered Claudius). Probably Kyle MacLachlan's best moment as Claudius.

- While Sam Shepard (as the Ghost) wasn't quite the same, there was a slight echo, though not so extreme, of Patrick Stewart's playing the Ghostly Hamlet as not a loving father but a bully, contrasting with his brother Claudius's more surface-gentle, man of diplomacy rather than war.

- Bill Murray as Polonius did run along the usual lines, but he had two good moments. One was his advice to the departing Laertes, given as if by a loving father rather than (as usually delivered) a tedious lecture. The other was that he spoke the line to Claudius, in relation to uncovering the source of Hamlet's madness, about finding things out even if they go to the top, in a way which made me think of my view that you could plausibly play it that the wise/shrewd/insightful Polonius knew or at least suspected that Claudius had murdered his brother. I'm not sure if that was deliberate in the delivery, or just me reading into it, and I'm not sure there's any other clue in this production that that was what was behind it.

- Relatedly, one also wonders why Claudius is so keen to find out what's behind Hamlet's madness, and sets R&G to spy on him in particular. As Gertrude says, the obvious explanation is his father's death and mother's remarriage, with Polonius's suggestion of mad for spurned love a reasonable second suggestion. I think an obvious explanation for Claudius's keenness is that what he actually wants to find out is whether Hamlet knows or suspects that Claudius murdered his father. I'm not sure I've ever seen that possibility drawn out - though, to be fair, it would be quite hard to convey (Claudius eying Hamlet suspiciously/guiltily all the time?).

- In the final scene Gertrude deliberately drinks the wine, knowing that there's poison in it. It's only the second time I remember seeing this, and it's an interesting and performable idea.

Reviews (some links from the Wikipedia article, then from the first couple of Google results pages - finding reviews proved to be easier than I'd anticipated). New York Times. Washington Post. LA Times. New York magazine. Observer (which describes the set up and some of the characterisation, particularly that of Hamlet, very well). Guardian ('One of the wittiest scenes sees Hamlet, morose and almost torpid with introspection, drifting through a branch of Blockbuster in which every movie genre is "Action".' - a couple of the reviews mention this 'Action' detail (in the scene in which 'to be or not to be' appears) which passed me by; 'Ethan Hawke plays Hamlet perfectly satisfactorily, though he turns him into a bit of an indie-band lead singer'). Rolling Stone. Pop Matters. CineScene (some kind of amateur site, with a review which sounds like it was written by an overearnest and overenthusiastic student). ReelFilm (another film review blog). Fleeting Joy (a site devoted to the works of the director, Michael Almereyda). Ruthless Reviews (actually quite an interesting review, making a good general case for what I have always thought would be a perfectly reasonable reading of the play, that Hamlet is a completely selfish and unsympathetic toff who treats everyone around him badly). Boston Review (a long essay article of a review). Exclaim.

On the whole the reviews were more positive than negative, I think, giving more praise to most people than I would have, with in particular a surprising amount of praise for Horatio, who I thought gave a thoroughly unremarkable portrayal. A couple of the reviews also took Laertes' brotherly love for Ophelia as hinting-at-incestuous, which is a tedious interpretation but was perhaps fashionable at the time. I think the only production I've seen in which Laertes' love was explicitly more than it should be was the first production of Hamlet I saw, in the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh in the mid-80s, where Laertes planted a most unbrotherly farewell kiss on Ophelia at his first-half departure (and which, as I remember, seemed very out of the blue). The only other thing I remember about that production was that Simon Russell Beale was Osric - he was obviously sufficiently memorable in the production that I remembered him when I started seeing him in other things. And another Hamlet blogpost ends with a mention of Mr Russell Beale.

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